Battleground Poll: Voters Say Economy Too Tough for Middle Class

Americans pessimistic about economy; strong public support for changing marijuana laws.

GW Battleground Poll logo with blue donkey and red elelphant
March 25, 2014

Americans continue to hold pessimistic views about the health of the economy and the overall direction of the nation, according to a George Washington University Battleground Poll of likely voters released Tuesday.

The poll, conducted in partnership with the Tarrance Group and Lake Research Partners, also showed strong public support for changing marijuana laws. The issues could drive turnout in an election in which both Democratic and Republican parties face challenges.

Seventy percent of voters said the economy makes it too tough for the middle class to make ends meet. This pessimism extends to their thoughts about the future as well: 76 percent of those surveyed disagreed with the assertion that the next generation will be better off economically than they are now.

“As we head into the 2014 midterm congressional elections, voters are in a sour mood,” said GW Professor Christopher Arterton, the poll’s director. “The long, hard, slow recovery from the economic downturn of 2008 should make voter discouragement a palpable concern for incumbents of both parties, particularly for Democrats given the continuing low levels of approval of Obama’s job performance.”

On the electoral front, one thing is clear: Americans continue to become more open to proposals to change marijuana laws. Plans to legalize medical marijuana enjoy a 73 percent approval rating.

Marijuana ballot initiatives look like potential turnout drivers as well. Thirty-nine percent of surveyed voters said they would be much more likely to turn out to the polls if there was a proposal to legalize the use of marijuana on the ticket.

The story at the ballot box is more mixed.

On the Democratic side, voters remain opposed to the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, by a margin of 43 percent to 53 percent. President Obama continues to struggle with an underwhelming 43 percent favorability rating, which could be a drag on Democrats even though his numbers have improved since the beginning of this year.

However, Democrats have substantial leads in several issue areas. Voters believe that the party does a better job than Republicans when it comes to solving problems (43 compared with 35 percent), standing up for the middle class (54 compared with 36 percent) and representing middle-class values (52 compared with 39 percent). Democrats also hold double-digit advantages in dealing with Social Security and Medicare.

“Democrats have closed January’s two-point deficit on the generic congressional ballot, and are now running neck and neck with Republicans,” said Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners. “To win the fall elections, Democrats must drive home a bold economic policy agenda that allows them to convert their substantial leads on solving problems and standing up for—and representing the values of—the middle class into advantages on jobs and the economy.”

Republicans have their own set of favored issues that could help them heading into campaign season. They have the advantage when it comes to dealing with the economy (47 compared with 43 percent), the federal budget (48 compared with 41 percent) and taxes (47 compared with 44 percent).

“There is an enormous opportunity for Republican candidates. Voters are ready to hear and consider the policy ideas of GOP candidates,” said Ed Goeas, president and CEO of the Tarrance Group. “Republican candidates who can cast themselves as backing sensible reform plans that will diminish the role of the federal government and provide better economic opportunity for all will receive the support of a significant portion of the electorate.”

However, there are warning signs for Republicans ahead of the election as well. Among self-identified conservative Republicans, 61 percent said they are not pleased with the direction of the party. Democrats are more united on their party’s direction, with approval ratings of 70 percent for self-identified liberals; 63 percent of moderates say they approve of their party’s direction.

Among potential 2016 contenders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leads the pack with a 54 percent approval rating among all likely voters. Vice President Joe Biden is second with a 44 percent approval rating. Possible Republican aspirants are tightly bunched, with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., leading at 38 percent approval, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 36 percent and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 34 percent.